Cree youth hopes to inspire others with science

A single eagle feather sits on the kitchen table in Simon Monteith’s home.

Next to it are a variety of household products including hydrogen peroxide, dish soap, food coloring and a baking dish.

The scene depicts the two worlds the nine-year-old walks.

From a scientific perspective, feathers aid in propulsion, enabling flight. From a First Nations perspective, an eagle feather is a symbol of respect.

“I like to look at things from two or more perspectives,” says Simon.

For the past two years, the young Cree man from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba has practically invited others into his Winnipeg home to share his love of all things science.

Using his kitchen as a backdrop, Simon has produced approximately 60 educational videos and posted them on social media under the name Simon The Scientist.

The project began at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Simon approached his mother about creating a video to help explain the virus to other children and young people. It expanded into content in geology, technology and chemistry.

Jacqueline Monteith says her son has always had the ability to understand complex concepts in an original way.

“It’s fascinating that a child has a unique ability to teach other children scientific concepts or complex concepts in a very unique way. Teaching children from children is a way that children will understand as opposed to adults trying to ‘they teach the kids,’ says Monteith.

Simon’s love of science came at an early age.

“It wasn’t really one specific thing that got me interested in science. It’s just who I am,” he says.

Simon hopes to reach groups that are under-represented in the sciences.

For Rob Cardinal, that same goal was what drove him to help found IndigeSTEAM, an organization that provides Indigenous-led and culturally relevant programs for Indigenous youth and other underrepresented groups.

The organization takes its name from the STEM acronym: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The group incorporates art, architecture and agriculture into their programming to form STEAM. This represents areas where indigenous peoples have been pioneers for thousands of years.

“Knowledge is knowledge. Our ways and culture are so applicable in these times,” says the Cardinal.

A 2020 study by the Conference Board of Canada found that Indigenous students are more engaged with a curriculum that connects Indigenous ways of knowing with Western science.

The board tracked more than 100 different programs in Canada aimed at helping Indigenous students succeed in STEM. The study found that while there has been a push to reach Indigenous students in the early years, there is still a gap in preparing students in high school for post-secondary studies in STEM.

Indigenous people make up four per cent of adults in Canada, but less than two per cent of those working in STEM.

There is a lack of financial, technical and community resources, says Doug Dokis, director of Actua’s Indigenous Youth in STEM program.

The national education organization is one of the nation’s largest STEM outreach organizations. It has built relationships with 200 indigenous communities to deliver programs to approximately 35,000 youth.

While work is being done on the ground and through various programs, there has not yet been a cohesive national effort to improve Indigenous educational outcomes and participation in STEM fields, added Dokis, who is Anishinaabe from Dokis First Nation in Ontario.

Dokis says that in recent years, the industry has relied on indigenous knowledge when it comes to climate and soil sustainability.

“Indigenous people have always known about STEM at the highest level. Indigenous knowledge is now becoming a focal point for addressing some of the current social, environmental and economic challenges facing society as a whole in Canada.”

Cardinal says it’s important for Indigenous youth to have role models.

Cardinal is Blackfoot from the Siksika First Nation and an astrophysicist. After discovering a comet, Cardinal says one of his elders told him he had an obligation to his nation to share his knowledge, prompting him to move into a mentoring role.

Cardinal hopes to show young people that there is a space for them in the sciences.

“Give them some inspiration and give them some pride.”

In Winnipeg, Simon is becoming a mentor in his own right.

He wants to turn his passion project into a TV show to reach more young people. He has submitted a business plan to the Pow Wow Pitch, a competition for Indigenous entrepreneurs, and is a semi-finalist.

“I want to help support other kids’ ideas so they can do what they want, which might not be science or it might be science, but I want to help kids find their dream.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 27, 2022.

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